Suzanna Marshall, Graduate Student, University of Memphis
I went into CoPED excited to experience a multi-disciplinary approach to research that has its roots in bi-directional learning and participatory action research. This summer, CoPED was about creating ideas and plans that could benefit the people in the Simeto River Valley in their efforts to move toward zero waste. Inside ProLoco, the white plastic tables were constantly being rearranged to accommodate the shared work between students and professors. Each transformation made my academic training more tangible.
The experience affirmed my appreciation for the way I was taught to do research. The theory and methods I brought to the table were completely different from students in other disciplines. As we worked, I realized that not everyone valued social and community-focused questions and solutions; rather, others in my group saw these as secondary issues. For me, this was new. The critical reflective nature of anthropology pushed me to understand where our differences in approach came from and what that meant for me as a researcher and collaborator.
All students conducted best-practice research before we began the trip to prepare us for doing research into potential waste prevention actions in the Valley. Students were grouped together to study an example of waste prevention and distill a set of best practices that we could share with the community and draw from during CoPED.
As we displayed these during an “idea fair” open house on Day 2, I realized I had only grasped one side of the dynamic issue of waste prevention and the realities people face in the Simeto Valley. While standing in front of my team’s posters, the Mayor of Regalbuto and the President of the Participatory Presidium asked me questions about the economic benefits and the self-sustaining nature of the practices of our case study.
The importance they placed on these issues increased the value I placed on economic development in relation to waste. As communities shared their goals for an alternative development strategy, they challenged my knowledge of development. I struggled to unify the social and economic approaches during CoPED because of the divide I saw between them. I prioritized community values and sought solidarity-based solutions while others pushed for financial and economic incentive-based solutions. I knew both were necessary to accomplish the community’s vision for development that is created and implemented at the local level. While designing a composting plan to decrease organic waste, I emphasized the need for a more holistic approach toward our projects and reinforced the need to consider social and community-based perspectives when defining problems and designing solutions.
While sitting next to Pozillo Lake, a water source the Presidium wants to protect, some planning students voiced that they had begun to recognize the importance of including socially focused research in their own work. A student reflected that they hadn’t considered the input of the community in their previous work. This honesty was refreshing and also validated the importance of an anthropological approach in these creative spaces. It reaffirmed critical lessons learned in the development of applied anthropology: without respecting and considering the knowledge and wants of the people affected by our work, there is a huge risk that projects won’t be successful, beneficial, or sustainable.
Like most disciplines, we bring our own strengths and understandings to the table. I brought attention to socially relevant questions and solutions to our designs, and placed value on the input of participants. These socially attentive practices are critical to projects like CoPED, where planning and development are involved.